story behind the book | kate tuttle

Words of wisdom and warning in Imani Perry’s ‘Breathe’

david wilson for the boston globe

“For years I’ve written letters to my children, on their birthdays and holidays,” said Imani Perry. It was her editor’s idea to expand these musings, which resulted in the new book “Breathe: A Letter to My Sons.”

“I knew I was stepping into a tradition,” Perry added, one that includes work by James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates. “Baldwin is sort of always in my mind. I was also thinking of Toni Morrison’s ‘Song of Solomon’ and ‘A Mercy,’ thinking about speaking across generations and trying to teach ethics and transmit love.”

In “Breathe,” Perry, a professor of African American Studies at Princeton, addresses her two sons, now 13 and 16, in a meditation on race and history, struggle and joy. “I gave them veto power over any story, any event, any episode,” she said. “I didn’t want them to feel as though they were being exposed in any way that was uncomfortable for them. They were present every step of the way.”


Perry, who has written scholarly books and articles for years, relished the challenge of writing in such an intimate vein. “We need more honest, vulnerable renderings right now. But it’s hard — it’s challenging to be so open. But I’m grateful to be challenged in that way.”

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The book probes deeply into the danger racism poses for black boys, and the need for vigilance in surviving it. Perry knows that some white readers will find her words provocative. “We need a deep reckoning,” she said. “And it’s OK with me for people to feel uncomfortable. But I also want them to read the lines carefully, because no one should feel threatened,” she added. “I hope people will take it as an invitation, as opposed to a rejection.”

Imani Perry will read at 7 p.m. on Friday at Harvard Book Store.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at